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Fears grow over threat to freedom in elections

Bosnia's shaky peace: Amid concern that poll will confirm warmongers' hold on power, PM sounds out Karadzic's opponents
Less than four months before the first post-war general elections in Bosnia, international observers and Bosnian Muslim officials are raising the alarm over whether the vote will be free and fair. Still worse, many fear that even if the elections go ahead, their main effect will be to consolidate Bosnia's de facto partition into three national zones - Muslim, Serb and Croat.

The International Helsinki Federation, a leading human rights group, called last Thursday for the vote to be postponed, saying that to hold it by 14 September as foreseen in the Dayton peace agreement would merely confirm the dominance of the nationalist political forces that sparked the war.

"It is seriously to be feared that one will see cemented the practices of ethnic separation, and that the people who led the war will continue to decide the fate of Bosnia-Herzegovina," said Dardan Gashi, a consultant for the group.

The United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia are expected to meet the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia in Geneva soon to press for full compliance with civilian aspects of the Dayton agreement, including the return of refugees and the holding of free elections. The meeting will address international concerns that none of the three former combatants is doing as much as is necessary to avert the risk of Bosnia's three-way partition.

Bosnia's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, and his colleagues, argue that the elections should not take place unless Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leaders charged with war crimes, have given up office.

They say the two men are certain to manipulate the vote if still on the scene, and point out that the Dayton agreement calls for the removal of indicted war criminals. However, among countries with troops in the 60,000-strong Nato-led peace implementation force in Bosnia, the US in particular seems unwilling to make elections conditional on the fate of Messrs Karadzic and Mladic. The State Department spokes-man, Nicholas Burns, said on Wednesday that as long as Mr Karadzic was marginalised and confined to his headquarters at Pale, outside Sarajevo, "I think the elections can go forward and will go forward with him sitting in his bitter isolation".

As yet, however, Mr Karadzic is in anything but bitter isolation. Last weekend he beat off an attempt by Carl Bildt, the international High Representative overseeing the civilian aspects of Dayton, to push him out of power. Now he is threatening to stage a referendum among Bosnian Serbs to muster popular support for his opposition to the peace settlement.

Meanwhile, Gen Mladic attended the funeral of another Serb war crimes suspect in Belgrade on Tuesday, in his first public appearance outside Bosnian Serb territory since the war ended last December. The UN war crimes tribunal attacked Serbia for letting in the general, saying the Dayton settlement obliges signatories not to shield suspects on their soil.

Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, denied yesterday that Western countries had tacitly agreed to let Messrs Karadzic and Mladic remain in Bosnian Serb territory so long as they withdrew from public view and shed most of their powers. However, Western officials acknowledge that there is little appetite for arresting the two men, lest it provoke an anti-Nato backlash among the Bosnian Serb population that could wreck the elections.

The US, Britain and other countries with troops in Bosnia want the elections to proceed on schedule for fear the Dayton timetable may disintegrate. Although they acknowledge Nato troops may have to stay in Bosnia beyond the original deadline of next December, Western governments do not want their presence in Bosnia to turn into an open-ended commitment.

The prospects for holding elections by mid-September were not improved yesterday by an announcement that municipal elections in Mostar, the southern city divided between Muslims and Croats, will be held in late June instead of the scheduled date of 31 May.

Mr Izetbegovic's Muslim-led party, the Party of Democratic Action, had previously refused to participate in the elections on the grounds that Muslim refugees from Mostar would be denied the chance to vote.

The city had a slight Muslim majority before the 1992-95 war, but after fighting broke out, Bosnian Croats declared it the capital of their self- styled mini-state, Herzeg-Bosnia.